Eleanor Sterling happened to be visiting the Galápagos Islands on June 24, 2012, the day Lonesome George died. George, the last of a species of giant tortoise unique to Pinta Island, had become an iconic symbol of the struggle to conserve disappearing species. Sterling had come to the islands on conservation business, but she dropped everything when she heard that George had expired.
The first thing Sterling did was put in a call to George Dante, a New Jersey taxidermist. Sterling, who directs the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Center for Biodiversity and Conservation in New York City, knew Dante from his previous work for the museum. He impressed on her the need to act quickly to protect the iconic tortoise’s body from the ravages of decay. George’s eyes and the skin, being most prominent, were particularly vulnerable.
That turned out to be no easy matter on Pinta, one of the smaller and more remote islands in the archipelago. Sterling and members of Galapágos National Park Service began to search local stores for freezer plastic or some other material to wrap George in. They had little success at first—store after store told them they would have to wait until the next plane of supplies arrived from Ecuador. As the day went on, Sterling and the others grew discouraged.
But their luck quickly changed. Storeowners, moved by Lonesome George’s death, got on the phones and began scrounging up supplies. “All of a sudden, the materials that we needed started coming from a pig farm here and a fish factory there,” Sterling says. Before any damage occurred, George had been wrapped from head to tail and safely frozen, ready to be swaddled in insulation and shipped out.
Nine months later, on March 11, 2013, Lonesome George arrived at the AMNH. Scientists there inspected the frozen tortoise for any damage that may have been done during his trip, and then packed him up and sent him by truck to Dante’s studio, Wildlife Preservations, in Woodland Park, N.J.
Dante unwrapped George and waited for him to defrost. He and his team of four taxidermists then began to take dental alginate and silicone molds of George’s feet and head. The taxidermists then poured polyester resin into the negative molds to create three-dimensional models. The models will be used for reference throughout the six-month or so process of being stuffed and mounted.
Next, they removed George’s skin and placed it in an acid solution, which cleans and thickens the skin (the skin remains in the bath). They now plan to spend several weeks sculpting all of George’s muscles out of an oil-based clay. While sculpting George’s musculature, the taxidermists will repeatedly wrap the skin around Dante’s clay model and make refinements until it fits perfectly.
Dante, who has done projects for the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Smithsonian Institution, prides himself on the scientific accuracy of his work. He prefers museum projects, he says, because of their high standards. George is particularly challenging. For one thing, the sculpting process tends to be more difficult for reptiles than for mammals. With reptiles, he says, “There’s no fur to hide anything. The anatomy underneath has to be as perfect as it can be because the skin is a very thin membrane.”
George also may be the world’s most famous tortoise, which makes it all the more important for Dante to be true to life. Whereas he has in the past ordered premade musculature that he then modifies, this time Dante is taking no shortcuts: he will sculpt Lonesome George from scratch.
Once Dante is satisfied that the clay model accurately depicts George’s musculature, the taxidermist team will make a silicone and fiberglass mold of the model. They will then fill the mold with liquid urethane foam, creating an exact replica of the clay sculpture. The team will continue to refine details on the foam model using a water-based clay. After test-fitting the skin several more times, they will coat the foam model in glue, attach the skin and sew it together using a very fine stitch that resembles surgical suture.
The shell requires a different series of steps: It first must be cleaned of all tissue, leaving only the bony structure. Dante and his crew will position a flexible, sturdy insole made of wood, foam and steel inside of the shell for support. The rest of George’s body, including his organs, eyes and muscles, will be shipped back to the Galapágos National Park, as Ecuador has requested.
Dante anticipates that some color may fade on both the shell and the skin during the process. He plans on spending several days at the back end of the process restoring the color using high quality airbrush and hand paints. Because George spent most of his life covered in dust and dirt, Dante will add some of the soil from George’s enclosure to the skin and shell.
The exact pose that Lonesome George will strike is still being deliberated. Dante is collaborating with the Galápagos Conservancy, scientists at the AMNH and Don Fausto, the Galápagos park ranger who discovered George back in 1972 and has since taken primary responsibility for the tortoise’s care. Dante has some idea of what they are aiming for. “We’re leaning towards a very regal walking pose, with his neck extended.”
Taxidermy usually calls for great attention to detail, and replicating Lonesome George’s familiar face is no exception. “One of the great things about George is that he had all of these wrinkles and folds everywhere,” Dante says. The team is double-checking every move they make in order to ensure scientific accuracy. They are hoping to complete the process by winter or spring of 2014.
Once Lonesome George is ready for his debut, Dante says the model should last far longer than George’s 100-plus-year lifetime. George will be on display at the AMNH temporarily before heading back to the Galápagos National Park.
Until the day George goes on display, Dante and his team will continue to refine the details, not merely to preserve his anatomy but his personality as well. “You can read about this online and in books, but there’s nothing like standing there face to face with George,” he says. “There’s an emotional connection as soon as you see him.”